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Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder Joseph Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala (1940–2020), founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

by Linnea Crowther

Joseph Shabalala was a singer and musician who founded the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and served as their music director, bringing traditional Zulu music to a worldwide audience. Founded in 1960, Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded Africa’s first gold album, 1973’s “Amabutho.” They gained international fame when Paul Simon collaborated with them for his 1986 Grammy-winning album “Graceland.” Ladysmith Black Mambazo sang on several tracks, and Shabalala co-composed the song “Homeless” with Simon. Simon produced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s 1987 album Shaka Zulu,” which won a Grammy, their first of five, for Best Traditional Folk Recording. The group went on to appear in Michael Jackson’s 1988 movie “Moonwalker” and to sing at South African President Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration. Shabalala remained with Ladysmith Black Mambazo until his 2014 retirement; the group continues touring today.

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Died: February 11, 2020 (Who else died on February 11?)


Details of death: Died at a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa at the age of 79.

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The origins of Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Raised on a farm near the town of Ladysmith, South Africa, Shabalala began singing with his friends as a young man, eventually organizing them into a group. Their name was chosen to reflect their home and their ambition: “Ladysmith” is their hometown, “Black” represents the black oxen on the farm where Shabalala grew up, and “Mambazo” means “axe,” a bit of a boast from a group that could “cut down the competition.”

Shabalala on the group’s early days: “The young boys when they get together, they started to sing the songs, until the mamas and the neighbors said, ‘Hey, do it again.’ It was just like that. They were calling, ‘Do it again. Do it again.’” —from a 2014 BBC interview

What people said about him: “Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala. Our Founder, our Teacher, and most importantly, our Father left us today for eternal peace. We celebrate and honor your kind heart and extraordinary life. Through your music and the millions who you came in contact with, you shall live forever.” —Ladysmith Black Mambazo

“The passing of Mr Joseph Shabalala signifies a sad end of an era. He was a music icon and role model. For over 60 years he led the iconic Ladysmith Black Mambazo as they blazed the trail in the music industry, collecting numerous awards locally and internationally.” —South African Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

Full obituary: BBC

Related lives:

  • Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013), anti-apartheid activist and president of South Africa
  • Fela Kuti (1938 – 1997), Nigerian Afrobeat musician
  • Yusef Lateef (1920 – 2013), jazz musician incorporated world music in his recordings

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